Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Importance of Opposition

People don't like being wrong, and they really don't like being told they are wrong. Some have more tolerance than others for it, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying it's a general truth about humans.

One of the big challenges that the modern world presents stems from one of the greatest advancements in my lifetime. The Internet has connected so many people in far-flung places with different views and different value systems. Initially, I thought this would be a boon for critical thought. I figured we'd all bump into each other, and it would teach us how to live with one another. That's how cities work, after all. In New York, for instance, all different kinds of people have had to learn how to live with each other's cultures and customs, and I think it has fostered tolerance.

Instead, though, our increased connectivity seems to have had the opposite effect: it has allowed us to find large groups of people who don't tell us we're wrong, and to make communities out of such groups that are uninviting to dissenters or even outright ban dissent. Whatever extreme, far-out views I might have, I can now go online and find others who espouse similar ones and form communities that provide reinforcement and support. It feels good and affirming. It can even be addictive. A whole group of people telling me that my suspicions are valid, that what I think has merit, that they think the same way! Views are reinforced and their holders are given a sense of validity that can only come from the nodding of heads.

And when the outside world looks in and says something contrary? Well, that's just persecution. That's bias. That's the uninformed others. Everything they say is ignorant. After all, I have my views, and look at all these people who agree. We've talked about it all in the group, and that's the conclusion we've come to. It doesn't matter that your counterpoint is logically sound. What matters is that it doesn't agree with mine, so it must be wrong, even if I can't say exactly why. It just is. I've thought through all my views, and they all make sense to me on a deep level. They can't possibly be wrong.

That's how it is. Instead of using this huge tool of connectivity to reach across borders and explore new ideas about the world, we've used it to find the people who are most like us and build exclusive niches, where we can reinforce each other and treat the outside world with mockery and scorn.

This isn't about one ideology or another. Yes, it's more common for conservative types, given the nature of conservatism, but it certainly isn't exclusive to them. I'm guilty of it myself. I can only read Fox News or something similar for so long before I just get fed up. I used to be active in an online community that catered to a lot of different views from across the political spectrum, but as society became more segregated, the atmosphere there became less tolerant and more hostile, and the whole thing eventually withered away.

Given the lack of exposure to opposing views, it becomes easy to make assumptions or judgements about them - to build straw men of their arguments and to write off their concerns as misguided. And that's unfortunate, because we all need opposing views to reel us in when we go off to far. We all seek validation, but we need to be aware of that desire and suspicious of environments that never challenge us or make us think critically about what we believe. We need to react to opposing views with intellectual honesty. If we can't refute something, we have the be able to consider that maybe it's right and we're wrong. It's not so bad being wrong, really.

At this point, the problem is beyond any individual's ability to counteract it. It might be a lost cause. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between the various factions that seem to have taken hold in the political sphere. But I do hope that we find a way to understand one another better, and that we learn to admit when we are wrong sometimes.

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